Environmentalists, unions push Atlantic wind

Environmentalists, unions push Atlantic wind

By AARON NATHANS • The News Journal • December 1, 2010

Environmentalists have traditionally been divided on wind power, torn between a desire to combat climate change with clean energy and the need to protect wildlife from spinning blades and ocean-floor disruptions.

But on today, a coalition of environmental groups came down squarely in favor of the wholesale placement of wind turbines along the Atlantic coast, arguing that birds and fish have much more to lose from the status quo.

With a storm-whipped flag visible from the windows at the Port of Wilmington’s offices, a representative of Environment America called for swift but orderly federal permitting of turbines farms along the coast.

The group jointly authored a report released today with the National Wildlife Federation and Audubon Society, in addition to the Utility Workers Union of America, supporting wind power and spotlighting its potential.

There currently are no offshore wind farms off the coast of the United States, although there are 948 turbines spinning off of European coastlines, producing 2.3 gigawatts of power. China has begun putting turbines in the water, the groups noted.

Citing that potential, developers are lining up to put turbines off the shores of this country, the groups said, estimating that there are 6 gigawatts worth of Atlantic offshore wind projects in various stages of planning from Maine to North Carolina.

That would produce enough power for 1.5 million homes each year, the group reported.

The study relied on data compiled by University of Delaware researchers to tout the “significant offshore wind potential” of the Atlantic Ocean.

“The environmental community is onboard with this,” said Hamna Mela, federal field associate with Environment America, a group of state environmental organizations that branched off from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group several years ago. “Wildlife’s greatest challenges are from global warming and carbon-intensive fuels.”

Offshore wind has been praised for its potential to bring large amounts of nonpolluting power to population centers along the East Coast, as it has done with coastal communities in Europe.
The technology has also been noted for its economic development potential. The port hopes hulking turbines will be assembled there for wind farms along the East Coast, including NRG Bluewater Wind’s planned project off of Delaware’s southern shore.

In addition to its more expensive price tag, there have been concerns that birds could be killed by the turbines, and sea life could be disrupted as monopiles are pounded into the ocean’s floor.

These concerns, the groups said, pale in comparison to the damage inflicted, and expected to be inflicted, from climate change.

“The continued use of fossil fuels and the acceleration of global warming are particularly catastrophic to animals, marine wildlife, and their natural habitats,” the report stated.

The report noted that air pollution from burning fossil fuels such as coal or oil causes potentially deadly human exposure to ground level ozone and smog. For animals, acid rain and airborne mercury have destroyed lakes and contaminated fish, the authors noted.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example of how animals can be hurt by continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels, said Tony Iallonardo, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington.

The report came, coincidentally, on the same day Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the waters off the Mid- and South Atlantic, and portions of the Gulf of Mexico, would remain under an oil and gas drilling and exploration moratorium for seven years.

Mela praised Salazar’s announcement last week that his department would work with states and developers to speed up the permitting process of offshore wind farms. Developers were worried that the seven-to nine-year permitting timeline for offshore wind farms was too long to attract investors.

Salazar announced that environmental reviews could be consolidated, cutting six months to a year from the permitting process.

Mela said more work remains, including funding research and development for offshore wind, and identifying “high-priority sites with limited resource conflicts off the Atlantic for quick and thorough permitting.”

“Offshore wind is ready to take off in Delaware, but we need the Obama administration to clear the runway,” she said.

It’s too early to tell how many wind projects are likely to be constructed, said Matt DaPrato, an analyst with the Massachusetts-based IHS Emerging Energy Research.

The projects with the best chance of being built, he said, are Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound; small test projects in state waters off of Atlantic City and Rhode Island; and the Bluewater Wind project off of Delaware.

Delaware’s natural resources secretary, Collin O’Mara, said the report shows the “incredible interest” in offshore wind, but on the government side, “we have to put the pieces together.”

Those pieces, he said, include the renewal of federal tax credits that wind developers rely upon to make their projects cost-effective.